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June 06, 2013

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Weeding the Web

Interesting. Wisley have had an area dedicated to growing native and non-native plants to gauge their attractiveness to insects (not sure if it's still there). When we visited a couple of years ago, mid-summer, it was very clear that the insects were far more interested in the native and northern hemisphere beds than in those growing southern hemisphere plants. (Mind you, we only went there once, so it might have been free take-away time at the Lavender Bar.)

About the seedless buddliea, if it doesn't grow seed, does it bother to produce much of what the insects want? It doesn't actually need to attract them, does it?

Cynthia, aka Gaia gardener

While insects will use almost any flower for nectaring, it's in eating the foliage that the big difference between the use of native and non-native plants is found. While Buddleia may have 19 different moth larvae that use its foliage as food in Britain, for example, here in the U.S. it is not used in that way at all.

Incidentally, most native plants have developed mechanisms to co-exist with the native insects that eat their foliage, thus maintaining a balance and doing serious harm to neither. Once you start introducing non-native insects into the equation, though, all bets are off.

I would suggest that, if you haven't, you read Douglas Tallamy's excellent book, Bringing Nature Home. It's one of the best summaries of the myriad of interconnections between native plants and animals that I've ever read.

Graham Rice

Yes, Weeding the Web, research for the RHS Plants For Bugs project that I mention includes monitoring the insect visitors to a range of plots planted with very specific plants - I'm in England at the moment so I'll go take a look. You can find out more at the project's webpage http://www.rhs.org.uk/Gardening/Sustainable-gardening/Plants-for-bugs and the scientist in charge blogs about the project at http://mygarden.rhs.org.uk/blogs/science__advice/default.aspx I'll add these links to my original post.

Graham Rice

Cynthia, you make a very good point. Extrapolating from one country to another, even one region to another, and offering advice for one region as good advice for another region, can be very misleading. For example, sticking with Buddleia davidii, in our Pennsylvania garden we've never seen a seedling in more than ten years and plants don't always make it through the winter. But that does not mean that it's not invasive elsewhere, and neither does it mean that because it IS invasive elsewhere that we should not plant it where we are.

I suppose my point is that there are far too many sweeping generalizations applied thoughtlessly and too many bold assumptions made.

And yes, Bringing Nature Home is a fascinating read.

coriander leaf

What i know is that native plants are better than nonnative plants for native insects...garden full of nonnative plants will not benefit local insects as much as one with native plants.

Alison Alexander

Ken Thompson ran the Biodiversity in Urban Gardens project at Sheffield University. Their study also found that natives are no better than non-natives for insects. One theory they proposed to explain this is that many of our non-native plants are from other land masses in the Northern Hemisphere which Britain was formerly connected to and that insects here today have not evolved significantly enough since to make plants closely related to our own natives inappropriate for feeding. I find this idea fascinating. If correct, it would explain also why many non-natives in the US are good for insects. More info on BUGS: http://www.bugs.group.shef.ac.uk/. Ken summarised the findings in a book called No Nettles Required. Sounds like I'm on a Ken T sales drive but no - am a former student of his and found him inspirational.

Graham Rice

Thanks, Alison. That's exactly the sort of reasoned thinking that is so often missing from this debate. So many people jump instantly to a natives good/non-natives bad prejudice that excludes impartial analysis. And that bias precludes consideration of so much good science. Drives me mad!

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